Triumph of substance over style in Chelsea dour show

Chelsea 1 - Manchester United 0
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The Independent Online

Winning ugly was permissable for Chelsea yesterday. The Premiership's goliaths were the visitors and it was the new regime's inaugural match. Roman Abramovich will, though, expect to receive rather more entertainment for his £210m investment as the season progresses.

Winning ugly was permissable for Chelsea yesterday. The Premiership's goliaths were the visitors and it was the new regime's inaugural match. Roman Abramovich will, though, expect to receive rather more entertainment for his £210m investment as the season progresses.

The Chelsea owner is, according to the picture painted by club executives, a romantic when it comes to football. That is easy for him, it is a hobby. His new manager, Jose Mourinho, whose livelihood and reputation are at stake, is a pragmatist. This became clear as Chelsea, having taken a 15th-minute lead through Eidur Gudjohnsen, grew increasingly defensive - finishing with five at the back and four in midfield, all of whom were defending the 18-yard box.

While not pretty it was effective, as Manchester United - the heaviest goalscorers in Premiership history - were restricted to a handful of chances. That said, had Ruud van Nistelrooy been on hand to take them, United would surely have gained the point their endeavours deserved.

The Dutchman's injury has come at a very bad time for United. When everyone is available they will be a formidable outfit but, though United traditionally come on strongly in the spring, Premiership contenders now have to hit the ground sprinting. A high points total will be required to be champions. United have already dropped three.

That puts them a win adrift of both Chelsea and Arsenal, whose 4-1 romp at Goodison Park reminded their rivals of the standards required to dethrone them.

Chelsea's attempt to do so began with just three of Mourinho's summer signings on board: Peter Cech, Paulo Ferreira and Didier Drogba, a mere £45m worth. All played well enough though Drogba's performance was more suggestive of threat than actual. The key players were the usual suspects: John Terry, Frank Lampard and Gudjohnsen. In addition Alexei Smertin, recalled from his loan at Portsmouth, impressed and Claude Makelele hinted that he might at last produce his Real Madrid form. Equally telling was the strength in depth. When Mourinho wanted to put on a striker he could choose from Mateja Kezman and Adrian Mutu. Alex Ferguson had only David Bellion and Diego Forlan.

Despite this lack of resources, Ferguson fielded an adventurous formation featuring Ryan Giggs in an advanced role on the left, Paul Scholes as a deep-lying centre-forward, and Alan Smith drifting in from the right. This was a mixed success. Scholes saw huge amounts of possession and was highly influential orchestrating attacks but United lacked presence in the box.

As in Romania in midweek Ferguson deployed Roy Keane in central defence and John O'Shea in midfield but it was only a qualified success. O'Shea looked out of his depth and while Keane marshalled the back four expertly and won most of his personal challenges he was at fault for Chelsea's goal. That came, as goals in these matches often do, from a counter-attack.

Geremi beat Quinton Fortune to a headed clearance and advanced down the right. With United's back-pedalling defence in disarray he was able to pick out Drogba who headed the ball on to Gudjohnsen, played onside by Keane. The Icelandic striker beat Tim Howard to the ball and turned it in despite Keane's desperate attempt to clear.

The next 10 minutes showed Chelsea at their best with Lampard and Wayne Bridge driving them forward. However, within 15 minutes United regained their composure and reasserted their control. Cech made a brave save from Giggs after a flowing move in which Smith and Scholes were prominent, then watched relieved as Scholes mis-hit his shot after being set up by Giggs's flick.

United increased the pressure after the break as Chelsea retreated into defence, Mourinho in turn bringing on a midfielder, Scott Parker, for a striker, then a third centre-half in Ricardo Carvalho. Yet for all Scholes' promptings they could not break through. The best chance fell to Giggs eight minutes from time but William Gallas just did enough to unbalance him as he rose to meet Smith's right-wing cross. Forlan also had a brace of half-chances but, to no great surprise, he spurned both, being first denied by Cech then volleying wildly over.

In the closing moments, with United throwing everybody forward, Chelsea should have wrapped up victory on the counter-attack but Kezman's greed meant a pair of opportunities both came to naught.

Such a denouement would have been harsh on United. If Chelsea's spirit was impressive for a team which has been together only a few weeks, the defiance of Keane, Giggs, Scholes and Smith augured well for their chances too. An absorbing championship contest is underway. One hopes it will also become an entertaining one.

Goals: Gudjohnsen (15) 1-0.

Chelsea (4-1-3-2): Cech; Ferreira, Gallas, Terry, Bridge; Makelele; Geremi (Carvalho, 88), Lampard, Smertin; Gudjohnsen (Parker, 81), Drogba (Kezman, 69). Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Mutu.

Manchester United (4-3-3): Howard; G Neville, Keane, Silvestre, Fortune (Richardson, 83); Miller (Bellion, 83), Djemba-Djemba (Forlan, 72), O'Shea; Smith, Scholes, Giggs. Substitutes not used: Ricardo (gk), P Neville.

Referee: G Poll (Tring).

Booked: None.

Man of the match: Terry.

Attendance: 41,813.

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